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A GIANT REBOUND

Clawing my way across the bottom of a 40-foot hole famous for bull sharks and hammerheads, I spotted a shadowy figure closing in.

Fearing I was about to become another link in the food chain, I hugged the limestone seafloor hoping the beast would mistake me for just another piece of marine debris.

But the animal stopped about 6 feet from my face mask and stared. Then the body of the massive fish quivered, followed by a distinct rumbling that echoed through the water.

A minute later I looked up from my task at hand, clearing the bottom of fishing line, and noticed three more monsters looking at me like I was a piece of bait.

"Forget sharks," I told my dive companion after I surfaced. "I'm more worried about those goliath grouper."

Goliath grouper have been reported to stalk divers, occasionally attacking commercial divers, but historically the fish has drawn the short stick in its dealings with humans.

But nobody will dispute this species, once overfished to the point of near extinction, has made a dramatic comeback in southwest Florida.

One of the largest members of the grouper family, Epinephelus itajara, can live more than 40 years and weigh close to 1,000 pounds. But since 1990 this fish, once called jewfish, has been off limits to anglers and spearfishermen.

"The general consensus is that the stock is growing," said Steve Atran of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. "But to what extent, we are not sure."

That is why the Gulf and South Atlantic Fishery Management councils, along with the Southeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Marine Fisheries Service, will discuss the future of goliath grouper next week in Tampa.

The meeting is a step in a process that could take several years to get an accurate picture of the goliath grouper population in Florida and the Caribbean.

Before a population low point in the mid '80s, goliath grouper had been documented in offshore spawning aggregations of 100 fish or more. After the federal closure in 1990, scuba divers considered themselves lucky to see more than a few fish on a wreck during the peak spawning months of July through September.

Goliath grouper are slow moving unless provoked, and the large breeders have no natural predators other than humans and sharks. These fish were particularly vulnerable to divers with bang sticks _ a device that uses a shotgun shell or rifle cartridge to kill fish _ and it was not uncommon in the early '90s to find spent shell casings on area wrecks.

While goliath grouper cannot be harvested, anglers catch their fair share, both intentionally and unintentionally. Like any other fish caught in deep water, some goliath grouper may die after release.

But one of the greatest threats to the species' survival is habitat destruction.

Like many fish, juvenile goliath grouper seek protection in the roots of mangrove trees in southwest Florida's estuaries. That is one reason the waters of Lee and Collier counties have one of the highest concentrations of these behemoths in Florida.

Marine biologists from Tallahassee to Miami have studied goliath grouper for more than a decade. While many anglers and spearfishermen would like to see the harvest ban lifted or at least some type of tag system initiated for limited harvest, federal fisheries managers think any such move would be premature.

"There is no doubt that the management of goliath grouper is a success story," said Roy Crabtree, administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Region. "In some areas the population is quite healthy, but we do not know if that trend extends to all of their historic range."

One study suggests there is a 50 percent chance the goliath grouper population will return to healthy numbers by 2006 if the current management plan remains in place. Wait until 2012 to remove the protected species status, and the odds increase to 95 percent.

One thing is sure: Goliath grouper will be a big issue, as big as the fish, in coming years as anglers, divers and environmentalists battle over fishery status.

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